This slump is worse than most; so is the mood. Once demand returns, they say, jobs will come back and, with them, optimism. But Americans are far more apprehensive than usual, and their worries seem to go beyond the short-term debate over stimulus vs. deficit reduction. They fear that we are in the midst of not a cyclical downturn but a structural shift, one that poses huge new challenges to the average American job, pressures the average American wage and endangers the average American Dream. The middle class, many Americans have come to believe, is being hollowed out. I think they are right.
People who get paid a decent wage for skilled but routine work in manufacturing or services are getting squeezed by a pincer movement of technology and globalization.
(Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010, Time, Fareed Zakaria, How to Restore the American Dream)
The news this morning in Dallas is not good. Home sales are down 30% (though prices are slightly up). And though our area is relatively healthy, there is a great sense of unrest in our city. Leaders of nonprofits see requests for basic human needs increasing significantly, and they are finding it harder and harder to raise needed funds. I run into people all the time who are “in transition.” They are looking for a job – increasingly, jobs that are very hard to find. Especially for the “middle-aged” among us. But, also, for the recent college graduates. And older folks, who thought they were about to retire – and can’t.
No group seems immune from the sense of unrest.
I recently spoke to a very sharp group of current MBA students. More than one has a “job lined up” – a company that he/she is starting upon graduation. They might succeed. Or, they might not…
Recently, Brian Whetten posted The Death of Dilbert: Why Your Children Will Need to Love Their Jobs on The Huffington Post. He quotes from both Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman, and he pulls it all together in a simple, clear way. Here’s a lengthy excerpt:
In Time Magazine, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that there are basically three types of jobs in America.
• Unskilled service jobs (such as waiter or security guard)
• Skilled, routine jobs (such as sales, office management and factory workers)
• Managerial, technical and professional jobs (such as executives, entrepreneurs and doctors)
In other words, you can flip burgers, shuffle papers or innovate. And over the last 100 years, our country has been built on the backs of “middle America”; the hard working men and women who worked 9-5 jobs, and did the work they were told to, so they could bring their paychecks home to their families.
The majority of today’s middle class jobs involve skilled but routine work; it can be boring and unfulfilling, but at least is safe and predictable.
Perhaps this is why Dilbert is one of our funniest, most popular cartoons. I mean, who can’t relate to the idiocies and inefficiencies in his world?
But here’s the thing. Dilbert is dying.
While the number of unskilled jobs and professional jobs have both been increasing, even in the face of this recession, the number of skilled, routine jobs — the bread and butter work of the middle class — is falling through the floor.
As Thomas Friedman points out,
Just doing your job in an average way — in this integrated and automated global economy — will lead to below-average wages. Sadly, average is over. We’re in the age of “extra,” and everyone has to figure out what extra they can add to their work to justify being paid more than a computer, a Chinese worker or a day laborer. “People will always need haircuts and health care,” says Katz, “and you can do that with low-wage labor or with people who acquire a lot of skills and pride and bring their imagination to do creative and customized things.” Their work will be more meaningful and their customers more satisfied.
I think we are in the midst of, what the experts call, a structural shift in our economy. And we haven’t figured out just what to do about this.
As I have written quite a few times on this blog, this is the problem that keeps me awake at night: Where will people work? For all of us, we have to keep learning, to keep innovating, to keep being valuable to someone who will hire us, for a job that lasts a while, or assignments that come and go so quickly we barely have time to catch our breath. And for many, simply finding a job is becoming the survival challenge of the era.